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Tales of The Desert Padre: Fr. John J. Crowley

12/6/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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He gave his life to a barren desert valley that had been stripped of life by the Los Angeles irrigation system. In doing so, Fr. John Crowley became a legend.

By William E. Webster '48

Alongside state Route 14 in the California high desert country, a stark memorial-a white, rust-stained cross made of plain metal pipe bearing the inscription, "Father John J. Crowley"-rises from the arid, mesquite-covered plain some 23 miles north of Red Rock Canyon State Park. This simple memorial marks the location where Fr. Crowley died in 1940, killed while driving his ancient Ford along this lonely stretch of highway. A graduate of Holy Cross, his story is the stuff of legend.

My family had passed that simple memorial many times on our way to camping and fishing locales in the Eastern Sierra Nevada country. Further north, we had driven by Crowley Lake, which, I later learned, had been named for him.

A Catholic priest who served in the desert area in the 1920s and '30s, Fr. Crowley has been cited in the book, Water and Power, by William L. Kahrl, as one of the most influential advocates of tourism in an area desperately in need of economic development during the Depression years. The reference piqued my curiosity; later, while browsing in a bookstore in the Owens Valley, I discovered a book entitled, Desert Padre, by Joan Brooks and learned that Fr. Crowley was a graduate of Holy Cross. This discovery inspired me to learn more about this wonderful man.

To appreciate the role Fr. Crowley would play in Owens Valley, one needs to understand the geography and history of this area situated between the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the stark White and Inyo mountains to the east. Starting in the 1870s, early settlers trapped the Owens River to irrigate fields and orchards in the remote valley and created, for a short time, one of the most productive agricultural areas in California. That would change, however, when the gigantic irrigation projects diverted the water from the valley along 223 miles to Los Angeles, resulting in that city's phenomenal growth and the corresponding decline of the Owens Valley farms. (The incident is the subject of the movie Chinatown.) Before long, the verdant valley was returned to desert conditions where the vegetation consisted largely of greasewood and sagebrush. It was in this harsh environment that Fr. Crowley would live during his years of service to the area. With the demise of agriculture as an economic base, Fr. Crowley turned to tourism as a potential means of helping the valley residents survive. And it is to these efforts that he would devote the final six years of his life.

John J. Crowley was born on Dec. 8, 1891, in County Kerry, Ireland. His family emigrated to Worcester in 1903. Crowley entered Holy Cross in 1911 and became an active participant in college life, contributing stories, essays and poems to The Purple and serving as the journal's editor in chief during his senior year. This literary flair would stay with him throughout his life as he wrote for various local and diocesan publications during his 22 years in California.

After graduating from Holy Cross, he entered the seminary in Baltimore, Md., with a reference from Rev. Joseph N. Dinand, S.J. Ordained in 1918 in Fall River, Mass., he left shortly after for Los Angeles, borrowing 50 dollars from his bishop to purchase his train ticket to the coast. He served briefly in two parishes before he volunteered, in 1919, to serve in a parish located in the desert region of four different counties-Mono, Inyo, Kern and San Bernadino. His initial parish covered 30,000 square miles, an area equal in size to all of Ireland. His northernmost church was in Bishop, 200 miles from its southern counterpart in Barstow. And in those years, this remote area had few paved roads. Driving between his scattered parish meant bouncing over gravel and sand. The parish contained both the lowest spot in the United States, Death Valley, and the highest, Mount Whitney. In his first 16 months, Fr. Crowley put over 50,000 miles on his Model T Ford. Adapting quickly to his new environment, he kept a sleeping bag in his car for emergencies and donned the uniform that would be his trademark: riding boots, khaki riding pants and a khaki shirt under which he wore his clerical collar.

After serving in this desert parish for five years, he became pastor of St. John's Cathedral, Fresno, in 1924. During this time, Fr. Crowley was instrumental in starting St. Columba's High School there; as part of a major diocesan fund-raiser, he arranged for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to appear in an exhibition baseball game.

Ten years later, Fr. Crowley returned to Eastern Sierra County and the Owens Valley. He was disheartened by what he found.

With the water supply diverted to Los Angeles, many of the region's residents had ...

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Arthur Jaseau
    4 years ago

    Mr. Websters narrative is SPOT ON!. I would also urge everyone to read Joan Books' very informative book about this great and truly holy man, 'The Desert Padre'.
    The day he died we were told that Father Crowley was killed while en route to serve Mass at our Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Death Valley. I was a CCC young man who served as one of his altar-boys and had done so since first meeting him in 1938 when he conducted Mass for us at our CCC camp in Mammoth Lakes. He had also held Mass for us when our camp moved to Lone Pine and then at our last camp in Death Valley. In our camps he always included chats after Mass and almost all of our 200 fellows, Catholic or not, attended because he spoke on many topics of importance to young men and he would answer any question forthright, always with his marvelous Irish brogue and wit. He got us entry to the many of the areas movie sets and I became so intrigued with the filming and cameras that later I studied filming and am still a filmmaker as well as a retired Forest Ranger. Many motion picture luminaries visited our several camps and entertained us because of his urging and their respect for this marvelous man.
    Along with many CCC boys from two other camps, several of us from Death Valley attended his funeral in Lone Pine. And later at our camp we conducted a memorial for Father Crowley and as camp bugler (after a couple of attempts to get my emotions in check) I played Taps. I often think of Father Crowley and his influence on me and visit his memorial when I return to the area several times a year. I make a pilgrimage to Lake Crowley and also to the end of Whitney Portal road where he had conducted our Mass in one of God's most magnificent settings.
    In 1934 Father Crowley, with seminarian Harry Clinch, made the very challenging and dangerous ascent to the top of Mount Whitney, elevation 14,506 ft. ABOVE sea level to conduct Mass. He also served Mass in Death Valley, elevation 282 feet, BELOW sea level. Everything this giant of a man and Priest accomplished was larger than life and it is fitting that he was the only Priest to have conducted Mass in the Highest and Lowest landmarks in the USA.

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